Pan Scroll Zoom 3: Averted Vision

By Andrew Clancy

This is the third in a series of texts edited by Fabrizio Gallanti on the challenges in the new world of online architectural teaching and, particularly, on the changing role of drawings in presentations and reviews.

In this episode Andrew Clancy of Clancy Moore Architects and Professor of Architecture at Kingston School of Art reflects on his experience of teaching mediated by technology.

As the Pan, Scroll, Zoom project evolves and gains momentum, it might become the basis of a small publication. We welcome comments and ideas at editors@drawingmatter.org.

May 2020, Oughterard, Co Galway, Ireland – Dr Jane Hall, Dingle Price and Alex Gore on screen for third year final reviews in Kingston.

So the future came – as it often does – not as a revelation but as an inescapable adjustment. The tools we needed had been around us for some time, slightly in the periphery of things. The designers of these systems had not set out to build a life raft – but this is what had happened. When the need pressed so acutely we were relieved – glad, even, we had the option. Yes, it was hard work and tiring too, but we were ready for this, were we not? We knew our students well through months of physical teaching. Conversations migrated online. Projects were completed, assessments delivered, and degrees awarded. Each day we sat, solitary and immobile, and opened applications with names that implied collectivity and speed. ‘Can you hear me?’ we asked, as the grid of faces filled up on the screen.

It worked a lot better than it could have. This needs to be said.

The part of the eye that handles detail is a small depression in the retina, covering a tiny fraction of its surface area. Beyond this small area of central sharpness our immersive visual sense of the world is provided by the amalgamation of light, shade and conjecture we call our peripheral vision.

More than the loss of rooms and facilities, it is this aspect of sight that our new tools have set aside. On our screens our eyes flit from face to face, and occasionally snag on our own: a mirror in every room. The screen brings slideshows, models and drawings – chronologies of work on virtual walls. This situation is a peculiar inversion of the experience of being together in a physical room in which we each have a point of view based on our body in space, but share a peripherality and a context which bind the conversation together. On a screen we gather with our eyes all trained on the set sequence of images dictated by the person presenting. In our individual and separate peripheries, out of sight of the camera, is the matter of our separate lives – the mess of our table, the sound of our household and neighbourhood. The process of looking down at our screens, propped on the desk or lap, gently inverts the hierarchy of things like lectures. I well remember Niall McLaughlin’s Register lecture which we did via Zoom, and which I hosted from my car, parked outside a shuttered pub in the west of Ireland using its WiFi. There was something more intimate, better almost, about following the presentation on a small screen. The drawings, in particular, held in my hand, felt more immediate, more capable of extended study. The AF 100 Days studio also pushed this, proved that perhaps there was something about the traditional lecture-theatre format that prevented certain conversations from happening. Questions seemed more explorative, the weaving of answers more open-ended. Perhaps this arises from our domestic surroundings, a feeling of being at home, even if joined in conversation with several hundred others.

The camera matters too: a digital device built to focus on analogue things. In our crit spaces in Kingston we had already been using our phones to navigate the interiors of models – projected on large screens – as a way to generate an empathetic engagement with discrete works. This process was replicated as students showed work in progress for feedback. I loved it when students occasionally reversed their camera to focus on a desk while rooting through papers, or to sketch out what they meant. This got close sometimes to the feeling of being there with them, helping them see where they might go next. Videos of notebooks were wonderful, as was being able to roam freely across any of the hundreds of portfolios as part of an assessment without lugging cases around.

Then there are words, the microphone and the speakers. I noticed how often people apologised for talking too long, even though they had barely started – perhaps there is something about hearing our own voice echoing back in our room that disarms. This aside, there were aspects too which were little revelations. Many students chose to sit in during entire days of tutorials, even if these were individual desk crits – leaving their colleagues visible and audible in the background as they worked. This acted as a personal world service carrying stories from afar – a reminder that there was more binding us together than the specific requirements for instruction. Some, despite the turmoil and worry, reported enjoying this new format with no need to commute and knowing when to check in, being able to focus on clear steps to be taken. Those caring for others, or with pressing economic contingencies, also found space to engage more fully – and we are grateful to have found new ways to make ourselves accessible, aspects we will not relinquish in a hurry, but as an augmentation rather than a supplanting. Bandwidth and laptops are not equally available, and we saw written even more clearly the disparities of opportunity built into our societies.

But my favourite moments in reviews were when the conversation strained to communicate a point; times when there was nothing to do but to draw with the primitive annotation tools of the software. In the pixelated fat lines there was no room for finesse – only an urgent desire to be understood. This is nascent and seems clumsy but again is new, a way of drawing together in the making of a conversation. It was an aspect of the software that was perhaps the most valuable, and most in need of further development.

Our recent disruptive technologies have focused on stripping out things to concentrate on essentials, a process not made explicit but whose legacies we live with. Nuance, empathy and encounter have been traded for apparently more convenient means of discourse, broadcasting and commerce. With our move to remote teaching we are asked to trade our physical collectivity for a narrower visual focus.

I am reminded that so much that I love about architecture lives in the hazy-edged peripheralities of sight and touch, a difficult thing to describe. I have long enjoyed how it doesn’t seem possible to read using peripheral sight, much as we supposedly can’t in dreams. Astronomers talk about the value of the averted gaze – how peripheral vision is best to see things that are dimly illuminated – so they look slightly past the object being examined so they can see it better, because in weighing what we found we must weigh what is left behind.

So can we talk about figures gathered around a table, about turning your head to address someone; about noticing something in a way someone carries themselves that makes you catch them later in the day for a chat. Can we talk about models and drawings speaking when their maker is gone. Can we talk about sitting together in silence, there being nothing to say. Can we talk of the chats between classmates, laughed dissections of tutors on the way to better topics. Can we talk of drawings done at a desk or a crit for no other reason than to find out what we want to say. Can we talk of the workshop, the library, the canteen and bar, all learning spaces along with the train and the walk to the studio. Can we talk of the value of watching someone work something out. Can we talk about the collective learning from each other – socially as much as discipline-specific. Can we talk of the end-of-year exhibition, the moments of communal pride that linger in an afternoon and don’t end in a frantic wave and a blank screen.

Remote processes in their narrow bandwidth of encounter tend to the transactional. We don’t gather in our schools as vessels in need of filling, but as vessels in need of floating – and needing the equipment to navigate. In Kingston as we chart the year ahead we are confident we can deliver the primary aspects of the courses we need to keep in focus, and are working now to look past this and to make space for the peripheral – for things dimly lit and not legible. We wait with impatience and a sense of novelty the immersive joy of being in a room together, of simply catching someone’s eye and smiling because they have brought something beautiful to the table.